People who are raped face a “culture of disbelief” when trying to obtain justice, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales has said.
Dame Vera Baird QC said a combination of myths surrounding rape and a drop in the number of people prosecutions, despite record volumes of cases being reported to police, meant many survivors feel like they were unsupported by the criminal justice system.
Dame Vera told the PA news agency how the lack of convictions was particularly disappointing given the good work of the #MeToo campaign in encouraging survivors to come forward.
The former Northumbria police and crime commissioner said:
It is a dreadful message to be going out from the criminal justice system.
It is true to say that the whole history of prosecuting rape – as anybody who has looked at it from the… [survivors’] point of view in the last few years would say – is there is a culture of disbelief.
It’s myths and stereotypes about the way women behave, gender relations and so on.
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But Baird also praised the way successful campaigns have given many survivors the courage to speak out about their ordeals and report the matter to police.
I think #MeToo has played a role – as have the prosecutions of Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall, Max Clifford – that was very telling.
That has made people realise that no matter who they are and who you are, the criminal justice system does want you to tell them about it and will tackle it.
This has played a big role in people complaining.
The obvious concern is this is not carrying through in convictions.
The annual Violence Against Women and Girls report from the Crown Prosecution Service, published in September, showed there were just 1,925 convictions for rape or an alternative lesser offence during the financial year 2018-19, down from 2,635 in the previous 12 months – a drop of 26.9%.
This was despite the number of rape claims dealt with annually by police in England and Wales rising from 35,847 to 57,882 during the last four years.
It means around 3.3% of all reported rapes end in a conviction.
Figures also showed that the charge rate for rape, essentially the decision to press ahead with a prosecution, dropped from 64.3% in 2014-15 to 48.2% this year.
Baird said programmes such as Football Onside, a bystander intervention project launched by the University of Exeter in collaboration with local football clubs to “challenge a toxic locker-room culture” of unacceptable behaviour and language towards women, were crucial in raising awareness and affecting change.
She said some attitudes towards sexist language now are similar to those around drink-driving in the 1970s.
I remember drunk-driving wasn’t badly regarded. If some middle class person got caught driving back from the pub, if they had too much, the attitude was: ‘Why aren’t police catching criminals instead of interfering with me?’
Good social awareness, good awareness raising campaigns from Government, have changed that entirely.
Now, if I saw you the worse for drink and get your car keys out I would probably say: ‘hang on a minute’ and take them off you, that’s what most people would do because you know it can kill.
It is about changing social attitudes, and it is possible to change them.
Baird was a successful barrister, being made a QC in 2000, before she became Labour MP for Redcar in 2001, eventually becoming solicitor-general in Gordon Brown’s government.
She took on her current role in June 2019.
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